This article looks at the best sidekicks from the small screen.
For my first article of 2018, I’m taking another look at sidekicks. This time, however, the focus will be on ones on the small screen.
Some have understandably taken issue with the Lone Ranger’s companion, stating that the character gives negative impressions of Native Americans. The fact that the name itself is Spanish for “fool” certainly doesn’t help. Some stories identify Tonto as being from the Potawatomi tribe, while others says he’s Comanche.
However, this character is unique because his dynamic with the famous masked man presented both a Native American and a white man working side by side, righting wrongs in the Old West. Hence, while the manner in which this was achieved may be dubious, some began to view Native Americans in a more positive light thanks to these two characters. This in turn may have influenced the direction taken by later westerns such as The Outlaw Josey Wales and Dances with Wolves. In his autobiography I Am Spock, Leonard Nimoy even states that the Kirk/Spock dynamic was reminiscent of the Lone Ranger and Tonto.
Both characters first premiered on radio in 1933. That show proved popular, spawning a series of books and also, most famously, a TV series which ran on ABC from 1949 to 1957.
The TV show remains the most famous version of the duo’s exploits, and the actors in those roles, Clayton Moore as the Ranger and Jay Silverheels (who’s from the Mohawk tribe) as Tonto, remain the most beloved. I’m still hopeful that we’ll see some sort of revival of this show in the future that both does the series justice and undoes the damage caused by the 1981 film The Legend of the Lone Ranger and 2013’s The Lone Ranger.
2. Ed Norton
Not to be confused with the actor of the same name, the goofball counterpart to Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden was one of the major reasons why The Honeymooners is embraced as a classic sitcom today.
Ed himself is a sewer worker who’s neighbors with Ralph and Ralph’s wife Alice (Audrey Meadows). While Ed—or “Norton”, as both Ralph and even Ed’s wife Trixie (played by Joyce Randolph) call him—comes across as dimwitted, more often than not he’s the one who gets tangled up in Ralph’s numerous schemes. This makes us wonder which of the two is crazier.
In lesser hands, this character would have just been annoying and nothing more. But Art Carney would secure his place in TV history by always making sure we would laugh whenever Ed appeared. Carney won several Emmy Awards for his work as Ed, and Gleason would go on to state that Carney was a huge reason The Honeymooners was the success it was.
Hence, we have Ed to thank for later sitcom characters such as Kimmy Gibbler, Steve Urkel, and of course, Barney Rubble.
3. (tie) Gabrielle and Iolaus
I link these two characters together mainly for one reason: the narratives of their respective shows overlapped.
First came Iolaus, played by Michael Hurst, who was the childhood best friend of the title character on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. From his first appearance in the TV movie which launched the series ("Hercules and the Amazon Women"), Hurst and Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules had nice chemistry together. As both Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess became known for taking dramatic license with mythology, I must point out that Iolaus was actually Hercules’s nephew.
Hurst played numerous other roles during the show’s run, which showcased his wonderful range as an actor. This included wearing makeup to play Underworld ferryman Charon as well as wearing a dress and wig to play the dancing Widow Twanky. In addition, Hurst directed numerous episodes of both shows.
While the show would become criticized for the numerous times Iolaus died and was resurrected, Hurst never failed to entertain. Iolaus even experienced moments of jealousy over how the public is enamored with Hercules during the show’s first season, although this aspect would be somewhat minimized in later seasons.
Nonetheless, this aspect was featured in the first season episode “The Warrior Princess”, which introduced Xena. In that story, she seduces Iolaus and prompts his inner jealously for Hercules as part of her plan to kill both of them. Iolaus eventually sees the light, and actually has a hard time believing Hercules’s claims that Xena has become a good guy when he meets up with her again in the first season finale “Unchained Heart”.
This leads us to the first season of Xena: Warrior Princess, which ran concurrently with Hercules‘s second season. In Xena‘s premiere episode, “Sins of the Past”, the Warrior Princess tries to reconnect with her mother. She ends up locking horns with her old acquaintance Drago (Jay Laga’aia). Xena thwarts him with Gabrielle’s help and the episode ends with the two traveling off together after Xena’s initial reluctance to have a companion.
Unlike Iolaus, Gabrielle isn’t exactly warrior material when we first meet her. But Renee O’Connor gave the character a wonderfully spunky attitude that made us like her. Gabrielle is drawn to Xena because of her dreams of adventure, and like Dr. Watson, even jots down Xena’s adventures. Xena, likewise, becomes closer to Gabrielle as the series goes on because she reminds her of the goodness people possess and how Xena can tap into the goodness inside of herself.
The chemistry between O’Connor and Lucy Lawless was definitely a match for that of Hurst and Sorbo (also like Hurst, O’Connor would direct several episodes). This would reach the point where many would speculate on how close Xena and Gabrielle actually were. As the internet was gaining popularity during this period, this gave a big boost to online fan fiction, as well as slash fiction.
To me, this is a reason why I like the first season Xena episode “Prometheus”, in which Xena, Hercules, and their respective sidekicks team up to free the title character, who’s been imprisoned by Hera, and as a result, left people without the ability to heal themselves. Iolaus and Gabrielle become smitten with each other during this episode because of the unique positions they hold. Iolaus sees someone who, like him, loves his companion, but feels the need to be special in their own right. Likewise, Gabrielle sees in Iolaus a kindred spirit in that he’s a nice, likable everyman who just happens to be close to someone who’s not your average person. This commonality results in sweet moments between these two during the episode.
I previously expressed my disappointment with Xena’s final episode “A Friend in Need”. To assuage that disappointment, I like to think that Gabrielle somehow reconnected with Iolaus and they lived happily ever after.
5. Dorothy ‘Dot’ Williams
This character is from the Australian TV series Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. This series, which is based on the books by Kerry Greenwood, is set in 1920s Melbourne and focuses on the exploits of private detective Phryne Fisher (Essie Davis). In the show’s first episode “Cocaine Blues”, Phryne returns home after spending several years traveling the world. But she feels obliged to investigate the murder of a friend. The friend’s maid, Dorothy Williams (played by Ashleigh Cummings), helps her in solving the case. This leads to Phryne offering Dot (as everyone calls her) employment as her maid and setting up her own private eye service at the episode’s end.
Like Gabrielle, Dot is cut from a different cloth than Phryne. But Dot is quite shy and awkward in the beginning, even to the point where she feels uncomfortable answering the telephone. But as the series goes on, Phryne helps her gain more confidence. This would lead to a wonderful ending scene in the show’s third season finale “Death Do Us Part”, in which Dot, having married her beau Constable Hugh Collins (Hugo Johnstone-Burt), thanks her for all she’s brought into her life. Likewise, Phryne praises Dot for her work ethic and even comes to view her as a sister of sorts, as Phryne is often haunted by the death of her younger sister Janey. The fact that Phryne herself develops a relationship with Collins’s boss Inspector Jack Robinson (Nathan Page) adds to the similarities the two ladies share.
This friendship may have been a Sherlock Holmes/Dr. Watson knockoff, but Cummings and Davis bring such charm to their scenes together that their relationship becomes just as memorable.
There have been three seasons of this series so far. We last saw Dot and Hugh go off on their honeymoon while Jack kissed Phryne farewell as she took her father back to England. There’s been no word yet on a fourth season, and one reason for this is because Davis herself is working on other projects, which includes a role on Game of Thrones. The show’s two lead actresses are the main reasons I would love to see a fourth year, but if that doesn’t happen, at least I can say I wasn’t disappointed with how the third ended.
Actors and actresses often say that playing a villain is more fun, as it allows for more ways of expression. It would also seem that playing a sidekick can also hold more appeal than playing the main hero, if things come together right. Indeed, other sidekicks worth mentioning include Don Knotts’s Barney Fife from The Andy Griffith Show, as well as Nathalie Emmanuel’s Missandei, the right hand of Emilia Clarke’s Daenerys Targaryen on the aforementioned Game of Thrones. I’d say the appeal, whether the character is intended to make us laugh or not, is that such characters can end up showing people how appealing both they and the ones they are linked to can be.